Wednesday, December 17, 2008

in medias res

In medias res is a Latin term meaning “into the middle of things.” As a literary device it refers to beginning a story somewhere in the middle rather than beginning at the beginning and following the sequence of events in order. An author might begin with a battle scene and then later in the book include scenes that lead up to the battle. A romance novelist could begin with the obligatory fight between the two characters and then begin to explain what happened before.

The reason we might want to use in medias res is because it quickly gives the reader something interesting. The idea is that we throw the reader into the heart of the story and then he’ll stick around long enough to figure out why people are shooting at him or whatever. The author tells the reader these things through flashbacks or dialogue. This frequently gives the timeline a horseshoe bend with the story is moving forward and backward at the same time. Revealing history in reverse chronological order makes it easier for the reader to connect the initial scene to the events revealed later.

What we are trying to do is to frontload the story with action. What we shouldn’t try to do is reorder the plot structure. Even with an exciting event up front, the climax still goes toward the end of the story and the inciting incident still falls somewhere besides page one. The midpoint still falls at the center of the story. For in medias res to work, the scene must help reveal the problems of the protagonist. There are many ways of doing this. Killing off a red shirt is one way. Once we understand the problems, the story needs an inciting incident to convince the protagonist to act. This could be part of either the forward moving or backward moving story. In the forward moving story, the protagonist’s life may be threatened, inciting action. In the backward moving story, a character may tell the protagonist something that reveals that the death of the red shirt wasn’t an accident, inciting him to seek out the murderer.

If we put the story events in chronological order, they might not make sense, but in story order they should fall in the expected locations.